Path To The Draft

5 things we learned about the linebacker class

Five things we learned about the linebackers at the 2019 NFL Combine:

1. Devin White headlined athletic group of linebackers. The LSU product led his position with a 40-yard dash time of 4.42 seconds and was second with a 39.5-inch vertical jump. Those are two key traits for the modern linebacker and part of the reason why NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah ranked him as the top linebacker in this year’s class, the No. 9 overall prospect.

“When you have linebackers that can't cover, a) it's a liability, and you will get picked on repeatedly,” Jeremiah said heading into the week. “It is tough to hide out there when you have a linebacker who can't cover. So to me, you start right there. He's going to be able to run and cover and help match up against some of the better tight ends and even some of these backs how they're used in the passing game. That's a huge asset.”

White converted to linebacker after originally signing with the Tigers as a running back. He went on to become the program’s first winner of the Butkus Award as college football’s top linebacker in 2018. Showing range and instincts from the middle linebacker position, he picked up consensus All-America honors before choosing to forego his senior season.

2. Devin Bush went stride for stride with White. White finished first in the 40, Michigan’s Devin Bush finished second. White came in second in the vertical, as Bush led the group and finished third in the broad jump. In the process, he hoped to put aside questions about his height (5-foot-11) and weight (234 pounds).

“They were overblown before the combine,” Bush said. “But I think everything that happened with my measurables and my tests is confirmed. … What you see on tape is real. That’s what you’re going to get 100 percent of the time, and it’s no fluke. I’m a tough player. I play hard, and my film speaks for itself.”

Bush, ranked the No. 2 linebacker and No. 19 overall by Jeremiah, was a consensus All-America selection in 2018 and a two-time Butkus Award finalist.

“I feel like I fit (the modern linebacker mold),” he said. “I feel like I can succeed in that role. That’s my game. I’m a twitchy linebacker. I can cover. I can blitz. I can play the run. I can do it all.”

His father, Devin Bush Sr., played at Florida State and won Super Bowl XXXIV with St. Louis Rams.

“That’s one person I can always lean on, one person that’s never going to give bad advice,” Bush Jr. said. “He’s going to keep it straight up with me and keep it real. He always encouraged me to be the best person I could be. When I was young, he said not to play the game because he played it. I should play because I want to. He always made sure I was playing the game for me and not him. When I made the decision to play football, he always stood by me. He was my biggest critic. He was always on me, but he always helped me get better.”

3. Kentucky’s Josh Allen worked out with linebackers, said he is the best player in draft. If you’ve been tracking the top performers at the NFL Combine from home, you’ll see Allen listed as an edge defender. But the Kentucky standout, who led the SEC in quarterback sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles as a senior, worked out with the linebackers over the weekend in Indianapolis.

“I think I’m one of the only guys who dropped into coverage half the season as well,” Allen said of what sets him apart from the edge rushers. “I pass rushed, I also dropped in coverage as well, so that separates myself from a lot of the guys here.’’

Allen, who won the Bednarik Award as college football’s best defensive player, was a two-star recruit coming out Montclair (N.J.) High School. He was set to go to Monmouth, but a string of late de-commitments forced Kentucky to take a chance on him. He proved to be a diamond in the rough, just like former University at Buffalo standout Khalil Mack. Allen would love to emulate the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s path to NFL greatness, and even has struck up a relationship with him over the phone.

“Oh yeah, I think I’m the best player in the draft, but I believe that, I think every guy here should believe that,” Allen said. “And if a team doesn’t believe that I’ll see them during the season.’’

4. Losing title game made it a tough decision for Mack Wilson to leave Alabama. Wilson said he is motivated to be the first linebacker taken in his class, but he has to deal with the double-edged sword of playing with so much talent on Alabama’s defense. He is trying to prove he was a major reason for the unit being so dominant, not just a beneficiary.

“Throughout this whole year, I feel like a lot of people were sleeping on me,” Wilson said. “I feel like a of people were talking negative about me or about my play. At the end of the day, people fail to realize that I’ve got 10 other guys on my team playing Division I football, SEC, who is the best team in the country. These guys are not just screw-ups. Yeah, I’m going to make a play, but expect these guys to make plays, as well. Whenever somebody messes up, a lot of people just criticize. We play football. Football, you’re going to mess up, you’re going to make mental errors, you’re going to do different things. But I feel like somebody shouldn’t judge you by that.

“Yeah, I don’t really entertain none of it because I know at the end of the day God put me on Earth to be a blessing to others and to take advantage of every opportunity. I’ve been taking advantage of every opportunity. I feel like I did great for the University of Alabama. I just didn’t finish it the way I wanted to.”

He was speaking personally and collectively for his college team. Alabama couldn’t close out another title run, losing 44-16 to Clemson in the national championship game. It stung enough to make it a tough decision for Wilson either to go back to school or declare for the draft, which he did.

“It was really hard, especially to lose the national championship the way we did,” he said. “Right after the game, I called my folks and I was like, ‘I want to come back because I didn’t want to go out like that.’ That’s just not the ‘Bama standard, right? I never lost like that in my life and I feel like I let those guys down by not just putting my foot down throughout the week of preparation.

“As far as my decision, it was talking to my people every day and I feel like if at the end of the day, I told my mom, I was like, ‘Mom, what more can I do?’ As a college athlete, I did some of the stuff that some college athletes never did. I’ve been to the championship three times in a row. I won a National Championship. I won two SEC championships. I told my mom, ‘I still haven’t reached my full potential, so why not give it a shot, go to the NFL, reach my full potential.’ At the end of the day, there’s a lot of great linebackers in this draft, but I still feel like everybody’s still got to show, they’ve got to show me they’re the best. A lot of people are talking about who is the best, but they’ve got to show me.”

5. Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill went from two torn ACL’s to combine standout. After tearing an ACL in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Tranquill never missed a game in his final three seasons, including his 2018 graduate campaign. The two-time team captain led all linebackers at the combine with 31 reps in the bench press, and although he didn’t finish first in any speed or jumping drills, he was tied for fifth in the vertical (37.5 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.14 seconds), sixth in three-cone dill (6.94 seconds), eighth in 40-yard dash (4.57 seconds), and ninth in broad jump (122.0 inches).

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